Maybe you think you can avoid them.
And like most people who hike into the mountains, poisonous plants are the least of your worries, especially since you rarely get off the trail or trek into areas of dense foliage.
My brother-in-law has fished the Greenbrier River for years, paying scant attention to the lush vegetation that occasionally chokes riverside trails into thin brown lines.
He and I were hiking out along the meandering emerald stream early last summer when we found ourselves in a forest of plants with three pointed leaflets on each stem.
Within 48 hours I had developed a rash on my shinbones and forearms. I figured it was some bug I had picked up while wading the water. Both legs were covered with a streaking red rash. The itching was nearly unbearable.
After nearly a half century of hunting and fishing with seeming impunity in country infested with plants sporting three shiny leaves, I had contracted a full-blown case of poison ivy.
“So, you thought you were immune?” my fishing buddy asked a few days later.
I was guilty, I said, of not being able to see poison ivy for the bass along the blue-ribbon stream.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had become a member of a not-so-exclusive outdoor fraternity.
The one-two-three punch of poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak, all close cousins in the cashew family, makes life miserable for up to 50 million Americans annually.
Rare indeed is the hunter, fisherman or hiker who has not had at least one case of the itch to remind him of his last outing.
Yet for plants that have forced their unwelcome acquaintance on so many people, misconceptions abound about their true nature.
One of the most pervasive is the one I had clung to—the belief that I was immune to their poisonous potential.
In fact, humans’ sensitivity varies widely to the chemical compound found in the leaves, stems and roots of the plants that causes the skin rash.
But no more than one in 10 is truly immune from the poison.
The confusion arises partly from the fact that contact with one of the plants does not always produce an allergic reaction. The plant must be damaged before the chemical is released.
Because the leaves are more fragile and exude more chemical in the spring, that’s when most cases of dermatitis occur. Then, too, the human body seldom reacts to its first exposure. For many people, the second time does the trick.
The immune system rushes T cells to the site of the contact, the body releases chemicals to fight the infection, which destroys the surrounding skin, and the rash is on.
But up to a third of the population are what doctors call clinically sub sensitive—the can be exposed numerous times before their bodies respond.
Unfortunately, many of the worst cases doctors see are middle-aged people like me, those who waded through ivy for years before their skin erupted in a rash.
One interpretive ranger with the New River Gorge National River, noted that a popular remedy for poison ivy (and stinging nettle) is juice from the jewel weed.
Jewel weed often grows near the nettle and ivy plants.
“You break the stalk of jewel weed and rub the juice on the affected area,” the ranger explained. “It has an almost immediate effect of cooling and soothing the irritation caused by the poisonous plants.”
He continued, “One of the park employees recently encountered some of the poison ivy while helping to remove a downed tree along the path of one of the walking trails near Sandstone Falls.
“He had a terrible case of poison ivy after he grabbed the tree trunk. There must have been some of the poison plant still growing on the dead tree.’’
The ranger recalled an old familiar mountaineer saying, “Leaves of three, let it be.”
Poison ivy grows on the ground, but it will vine on the trunks of trees.
The more you scratch, the more it spreads,” the park ranger said. “It’s painful, causing burning and itching on the skin. Some people might need to see a doctor to get it cleared up.”
A vaccine against poison ivy may still be years down the road, but recent FDA approval of a protective barrier cream goes a long way in the right direction.
Called Ivy Block, the lotion dries into a clay-like coating that prevents poison ivy chemicals from penetrating to the skin. It could be a blessing for outdoor folk who continually work in ivy-infested areas.
At $10 per four-ounce bottle, daily application could get expensive, though.
Some other barrier creams are already available without prescription in drugstores and outdoor equipment shops.
Antihistamines reduce itching, as do oatmeal baths.
Calamine lotion may also help.
And for reasons that elude medical science, running hot water over the rash for half a minute or so often relieves the intensity of the itching for up to eight hours.
Firefighters and others whose work put them at risk can build up immunity by taking prescription pills containing small doses of the poison ivy plant’s chemical
But the side effect, a form of itching that’s about as bad as it sounds, is almost bound to occur in certain areas that you wouldn’t want to scratch in public.
So, until medical science turns up an effective vaccine, the best medicine is to stay out of the ivy.
If that means avoiding a stretch of the Greenbrier or some other stream popular for fishing, so be it.
The way I look at it, there’s no bass or trout big enough to get me into a jungle of poison ivy again.
Top o’ the morning!